Are 'Free-From' Products Healthier? This Study Suggests Gluten & Dairy Should Stay On The Table

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Cut out gluten, make war on sugar, and avoid dairy like the plague. In this social media day and age we literally get nutritional advice thrown at us from all directions, some of it more reliable than others. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the newest foodie trend or what foods to avoid like the plague. Working with nutritionists, Wren Kitchens conducted a Behind The Label study to gauge peoples beliefs on free-from products and the results were surprising. So, are there health benefits from eating free-from products? When everyone can be a nutritional expert on social media, finding the truth can be like searching for a needle in a hay stack, not least because any nutritional diagnosis needs to take in your own personal medical history.

The Behind the Label study found that one in three people say they or someone in their household avoid certain foods in their everyday life and 41 percent of people prefer free-from products purely for the health benefits. At one time I would have counted myself as one in the 41 percent. I stopped eating pasta and bread last year because I was under the impression that the gluten was unhealthy. With my extremely limited nutritional knowledge it was a miserable, garlic bread-free year.

The study would suggest we are being sold the idea that free-from foods are healthier for us and it is working. Around one in every 100 people suffer with coeliac disease however sales of free-from products rose more than 40 percent in 2017 and the market has an estimated worth of more than £806.1 million. It turns out gluten-free bread and cows milk alternatives are big business. The study found that 28 percent of people asked would be happy to pay more for free-from products to benefit their health. So why is there is such a price difference between normal and free-from products? Are they really healthier?

Behind The Label for Wren Kitchens
Behind The Label for Wren Kitchens
Behind The Label for Wren Kitchens

Expert nutritionist, Charlotte Stirling-Reed said, “it is important to realise that free-from products are designed for people who are avoiding certain ingredients for specific reasons, such as allergies, intolerance, cultural, or environmental reasons. They are not designed to be health foods and therefore won’t necessarily make us feel healthier.”

If that didn’t already have me reaching for the macaroni cheese, nutritionists compared both the cost and health benefits from some of our most commonly bought products. It found that in many cases the free-from alternatives were actually worse for you. Take mozzarella, an essential in anyone's fridge if you ask me. The free-from alternative contained more saturates and salt than the normal cheese and had less protein. It also cost £1.40 more. If you're not medically required to avoid those ingredients, surely that is lose-lose from a health perspective?

Nutritionist, Stirling-Reed said, "I've seen in my practice previously that people often eat more of a product that is 'free-from' simply because they believe it to be healthier. However, doing that in this case would lead to eating a lot more calories overall."

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The Behind the Label survey is not alone in its findings. Research conducted at the University of Hertfordshire found whilst more of us are eating less gluten in the bid to be healthier it may not be wise. The study found, “gluten-free food is unlikely to offer healthier alternatives to regular foods, except for those who require a gluten free diet for medically diagnosed conditions, and it is associated with higher costs.”

Whilst some people choose to avoid dairy for ethical reasons and gluten appears to be the enemy on social media, there may be adverse health risks to cutting it out altogether if you don’t need to. Dr Katz is the director of the Yale University Prevention Research Centre. When speaking to the Well Blog on the New York Times website he said, “Avoiding whole grains because you’ve heard gluten is bad is like avoiding whole fruits because you’ve heard fructose is bad,” the more variety you have the better.

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It is difficult when you have doctor Google at your fingertips not to self-diagnose and with wellness and fitness becoming a social media phenomenon there is no surprise that we are obsessed with ways to ensure we are eating healthy. However, if you don’t need to, going free-from may not be the way forward and you shouldn't feel guilty tucking into your post-night out garlic bread.